When it comes to holiday traditions, the Christmas pickle can be kind of a big dill — depending who you ask. Some families forgo hiding the odd ornament, yet in other homes it’s the most sought after item in the whole house. But where did this custom come from?
Most people believe that hiding a pickle ornament somewhere in the tree is an Old World tradition that came to the United States with German immigrants in the 1800s. It’s said that whoever finds the pickle in the tree on Christmas morning will have good fortune in the coming year. In some families, the finder even gets a special present or gets to be the first to open his presents. But as it turns out, most Germans have never heard of the Christmas pickle, and you’d be hard pressed to find a German’s tree adorned with this garish green, sparkly decoration.
Other stories of origin make mention of an American Civil War Union soldier, born in Bavaria (an area of what is now Germany), who was taken prisoner but saved from starvation on Christmas Eve by eating a pickle a forgiving guard gave to him. Another story states that St. Nicholas miraculously brought two Spanish boys back to life who had been murdered and hidden in a barrel of pickles. Historical evidence states that the real story probably had much more to do with moving store merchandise than honoring any Christmas heroes.
While the origins are still a bit unclear, it seems the first pickle ornament was created for commercial purposes by the famous retailer Woolworths. In the 1890s, the retail giant began exporting glass ornaments from Germany — some in the shape of fruits and vegetables. Soon, glass ornaments became a mainstay on Americans’ Christmas trees.
So it’s quite possible that an ornament salesmen with lots of pickle ornaments to unload made up the far-fetching story of St. Nicholas and possibly the story of the American Civil War soldier, too.
We may never know the true story. The possibilities range from mystical to commercial, which considering considering the nature of modern Christmas, is all quite fitting. All that really matters today is that the tradition brings a smile into the homes of those that participate.